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Canada Border Services Agency wins media Code of Silence Award

The award is being bestowed on the CBSA for the ArriveCAN app, and the costs associated with its rollout
The ArriveCAN app was hailed as a tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19. | Oscar Wong/Moment/Getty Images

Canada's 2022 Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy has been awarded to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

The 'accolade' stems from its failure to disclose basic information about how the controversy-laden ArriveCAN app's cost to taxpayers doubled from original public cost estimates, according to a news release.

The government pushed the app heavily for travellers going to and from Canada as a way to save time at border crossings. It was rolled out April 29, 2020 as part of federal efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The Code of Silence Awards are presented annually by the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), the Centre for Free Expression (CFE) at Toronto Metropolitan and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

The CAJ said a Globe and Mail analysis found the pandemic-era public health app cost taxpayers $54 million.

"After spending at least 10 times what it should have for the ArriveCAN app, CBSA provided Canadian media with misinformation about how that happened," said CFE director James L. Turk in a statement.

Beyond the price tag, the groups said there was a lack of transparency and conflicting responses around the awarding of government contracts related to the app.

“During the summer of 2022, the CBSA told media outlets there were a total of five companies that had received contracts related to the app,” the CAJ said. “That number skyrocketed to a total of 27 contracts involving 23 unique companies, in documents the agency later submitted to Parliament.”

In one instance, tech company ThinkOn was said to have received a $1.2-million contract but company CEO Craig McLellan called on the CBSA to issue a correction, saying his company had never received that money. The CBSA  admitted it had been wrong and launched a review.

Soon, a parliamentary committee ordered CBSA to disclose outsourced invoices related to the app, but the agency missed the deadline. Soon after, CBSA president Erin O’Gorman told parliamentarians she didn’t know when document requests would be fulfilled.

"CBSA missed deadlines in providing answers to Parliament and ultimately said it did not have key information and made no commitment to finding it, a troubling violation of government transparency," Turk said.  

The CAJ found merit in other entries for "repeated institutional sloppiness" and selected two dishonourable mentions worthy of recognition.

The first was Trans Mountain, a federal Crown corporation subject to the federal Access to Information Act. The jury noted how, despite the fact that the corporation relies on billions of dollars of public money, it has improperly withheld information from Canadians.  

Of particular concern was a March 18, 2022 statement by the federal Office of the Information Commissioner that addressed a complaint alleging the Crown corporation did not fully disclose documents pertaining to the Trans Mountain project and other 2019 board meeting affairs.

The second dishonourable mention was bestowed on Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The CAJ said that was because DFO, for a decade, kept secret a scientific study that raised serious questions about the safety of salmon-farming operations in B.C.

“The intent of the awards is to call public attention to government or publicly funded agencies that work hard to hide information to which the public has a right under access to information legislation,” a joint statement said.

This year's winner in the provincial category will be announced on June 13.